Virna Cerne, Ombretta Polenghi

Gluten substitutes from corn

Technical field
Food chemistry
Dr. Schär SPA
Italian scientists Virna Cerne, Ombretta Polenghi and their team at Dr. Schär SPA in Italy are at the forefront of gluten-free baked goods development, producing an array of pastas and baked goods that allow people with gluten intolerance to enjoy a versatile and tasty diet without compromising their dietary restrictions. The unique selling point of the company's food products is the quality of the dough used to make them.

Finalists for the European Inventor Award 2016

In an age of social media and celebrity diets, going gluten-free is practically en vogue. Legions of wellness-focused foodies swear by their avoidance of the proteins found in wheat and other grains, and events are held to promote all kinds of gluten-free products. But for about 1% of the world's population avoiding gluten is not a lifestyle choice - it's a means of avoiding the agonising side effects of coeliac disease.

But the fact is, it's hard to find a viable alternative for wheat dough, which has its own unique chemical behaviour, taste and texture. A simple substitution is not always possible. So in 2013, Cerne and Polenghi patented a method for extracting gluten-like proteins from corn (called zein) - which is widely cultivated and thus less expensive than other alternative grains - and adding them to recipes. The result is a protein supplement that offers the taste and texture of wheat products but lowers the price point so that it can be enjoyed by a wider segment of the population.

Societal benefit

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the fine, bristly inner surface of the small intestine. Since one of the primary functions of the small intestine is to absorb nutrients from food into the bloodstream, coeliac patients often suffer from chronic fatigue, vitamin deficiencies and anaemia. For these people, a strict gluten-free diet remains the only effective treatment against their condition. But avoiding gluten isn't always easy, or pleasant. For people with dietary restrictions who still like to eat well, Cerne and Polenghi's process for extracting protein from corn is a godsend - and a delicious one at that.

About 1% of the world's population is estimated to suffer from coeliac disease. Incidence rates for adults vary across European nations. At the low end, only about 0.3% of Germans (240 000) are affected, but near the top of the list are the Finns, of whom around 2.4% have the condition (120 000). An estimated 3 million Americans - one in 133 - show symptoms of the disease. These numbers are likely to increase with awareness: the condition is considered vastly under- and misdiagnosed.

In addition to those with coeliac disease, a growing number of people also report suffering from what is called a gluten intolerance or sensitivity. They express similar symptoms that vary in severity when they consume grain products. The incidence of gluten intolerance is estimated to occur at a rate six times that of true coeliac disease.

Economic benefit

Around the world, people who lived gluten-free in 2015 supported a market worth an estimated EUR 4.27 billion. But they weren't only spending their money on alternative breads and pastas. Travelers were booking gluten-free vacations, while health-conscious apps were pointing the hungry to gluten-free restaurants and suggesting the newest delicious recipes.

Gluten-free soap? No problem. Gluten-free dog food? Yes, even that. New products are being created every day, it seems - which is why sales of gluten-free products are expected to reach EUR 7 billion by 2020. Meanwhile in Trieste, Italy, where Dr. Schär's R&D operations are based, new ingredients and processes - from cultivation techniques to sensor technologies - are being explored. That's how the company, which employs over 1 070 people, plans to defend its market share ­- some 35-40% of the European gluten-free market - and increase its annual turnover, which currently totals EUR 320 million.

How it works

Imagine yourself in a bakery, where the sweet smell of warm bread wafts through the air and fresh loaves come out of the oven spongy but firm. All of those characteristics that make bread so delicious are largely thanks to wheat gluten, which has a unique molecular structure, amino-acid composition and polymer nature. During fermentation, the gluten proteins in wheat dough are able to retain CO2 gas, giving rise to fluffy bread that does not collapse when it cools.

But the same cannot be said for other cereals. Finding the right substitute for wheat flour is important if you're looking to make something that looks like bread, smells like bread and tastes, well, just like bread. For this, Cerne, Polenghi and their team turned to corn and extracted two proteins, namely glutelin and zein. The zein protein carries most of corn endosperm ­-part of the internal food, like the yolk of an egg, which corn seeds eat until they become plants.

They did this by first experimenting with corn proteins. They developed a method to mix white corn flour into a solution of water and alcohol, heating it and stirring. This process isolated the gluten-like proteins, which the scientists could then add to food in various quantities depending on which texture, consistency or flavour they were trying to mimic.

The inventors

Virna Cerne has spent much of her life in her hometown of Trieste, a picturesque city on Italy's Adriatic coast. In the true Italian fashion, her life has been marked by a love of good food, and in 1994, she obtained her master's degree in Food Science and Technology from the University of Udine.

Following a two-year stint in Berlin developing semi-finished fruit products for yogurt manufacturers, she went on to work in the R&D department of Dr. Schär, first in Postal/Burgstall, Italy, and then in Trieste. Her love of food was with her all along the way, and today she heads the R&D department and is on the company's executive board.

Ombretta Polenghi consolidated her interests in nutrition and great-tasting cuisine while earning her master's degree in Food Science and Technology from the University of Udine, beginning the same year that Cerne graduated. Her interest in gluten-free products was already well-established by the time she had completed a traineeship on the topic at Dublin's National Food Centre (Teagasc).

After joining Dr. Schär in 2002, she rose from R&D researcher to department manager of research and innovation. A wife and mother of two, Polenghi manages to juggle her research on gluten-free and nutritional products with family life, which includes producing home-cooked meals. 

Did you know?

The incidence of coeliac disease has risen by more than 300 percent over the last 40 years. That's over fourfold! What's more, scientists are stumped as to why. Some say it's environmental, while others attribute the rapid rise to better diagnostics. Or it could be the modern diet. No one can say for sure.

Although we are more likely to associate industries such as electronics and medicine with patents, patents, such as Cerne and Polenghi's gluten-free proteins, also play an important role in the food industry. Patents cover everything from baking and processing equipment to food additives, storage and food packaging. Worldwide, Nestlé tops food and beverage companies for the number of patents it has in its portfolio, over 20 000.


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